Caught in the Middle

by Carol on January 19th, 2013

Fishing net on Xiamen beach (1984 technology)

In 1986 Hong Kong was reported to have more McDonald’s outlets per square mile than any other place in the world. In one of them Mary, a quiet woman in her thirties, talked about the two years she spent on the mainland working for two different companies. Thirty years after her arrival in China, we can still learn from her attempts to straddle the cultural divide, as well as the effect living in a different culture had on her. She has a great sense of humor.

Mary’s story

In 1983, after I finished my Chinese course in Hong Kong, I wanted to live with the language and improve my interpreting skills. I took a job where I would have a lot of contact with the Chinese. Maybe I went there with too many illusions, perhaps because I’d been living in Hong Kong all my life and I’d met a lot of the people who’d been there before the Cultural Revolution. I’d also seen the kind of respect and cooperation they showed the so-called Foreign Experts, who were all very positive. I think I was expecting the same kind of thing. Other people said, “Dear, you mustn’t go there. The country’s poor and broke and miserable, and nobody would want to live like that.”

Most of the time I liked being in Canton. The difficulties were the most interesting things, but on a day-to-day basis I felt at home. Because I speak Chinese I had an “in,” and very soon I was having conversations with everybody. I think as a result of this experience I’ve become a far more open, straight-forward person. I’d assumed there would be things I couldn’t say or do, but that was a mistake. At first I was afraid to give an honest opinion for fear or upsetting somebody. However, l found that once I got to know the individuals, they accepted what I said or did, providing it wasn’t ridiculous or ridiculing. If I didn’t like something, like waiting for an hour to get a menu in a restaurant, I’d say so.

I worked for a partnership of foreign and Chinese petroleum-related companies which provided training to oil company personnel. The training cost a lot. The students were Chinese university graduates who had majored in English. They learned about the oil industry and got some basic office skills so they could work as interpreters and take on assorted office jobs. For the first part of the course, they had one Expert from abroad and other speakers who came in briefly. My job was to interpret at meetings between the Expert and the Chinese and to do all the secretarial work involved. I would go to all the lectures and also provide English conversation practice for the students.

The Chinese provided a basic flat in the school for us to use. The professor refused to live there, but we used it during the day. The outside of the building was brick, but the inside was bare concrete. It had two large bedrooms, a large living room with cane furniture, a bamboo mat on the floor, and a squat toilet. There was running water, but not in the toilet. You had to flush it down with a bucket. Solid waste was supposed to be cleaned out and taken out to the farm, but the toilet was not cleaned in the four months we were there. Only unit leaders used the flat, and there was no way any of them would clean the toilet. They gave us an electric fan. The windows in the classroom were just lattice-works of bricks with no glass. The student dormitory rooms were bare concrete with double bunk-beds and mosquito nets and small tables. The only light was a naked light bulb which was too dim to read by.

Even before we arrived the Chinese had expected the professor would refuse to stay in the flat, so they arranged for two rooms in the White Swan, a five-star international hotel.  There’s a Western coffee shop, and in the Chinese restaurants you get white rice which is white in color and dishes which are fairly rich in meat and vegetables, whereas the school canteen served low-quality rice which was a muddy-grey color. The food was extremely sparse in meat and tasted rather disgusting. If you arrived at 12:00 you might get something substantial, but ten minutes later it would be gone and you’d be left with the very rotten cabbage. I think things have improved since then. In the White Swan, of course, we had air-conditioning and heat. The office equipment, like a photocopier and an electric typewriter and all, was kept in my room.

On a typical day, we’d ride out to the training course, which was a forty-minute trip one way, and spend the morning. Sometimes I’d help get the equipment carried up and down the stairs and set up, and then I’d listen to the professor lecture. Later the students split into groups to discuss what they’d just learnt, and we talked about it. Then we’d go back to the hotel for lunch and come back to give the same lecture to another group. We’d return to the hotel for the night, and I’d type and photocopy materials and order dinner for the speakers. In between we’d have to go to the airport to collect the speakers and make sure they got what they wanted.

For me the difficult part was the interpreting and the liaising because the professor had never been near China before. He was a Scotsman who’d come to China expecting the same kind of efficiency he’d seen in Singapore. I found it very difficult to be in the middle of that situation.  For example, at that time the White Swan was the only hotel for foreigners in Guangzhou. We were living on the eighth floor. The oil companies were just beginning to come in, and  Occidental Oil decided they wanted the whole eighth floor. The night before, the hotel management came and told us we’d have to move in the morning, but for the same rate they offered us a room at the top of the hotel. I thought this was great, but it reduced the man I was working with to a wreck—extreme anger. He said he didn’t want to be treated like that, being told at the last minute that he had to move. I said, “But this is the Chinese way.” If they had a banquet they would always come at 6:00 and say, “Please come to the banquet at 7:00.” For me the anger was one of the hardest things I had to deal with. The lack of knowledge and too high expectations produced anger on both sides.

Oh yes, the Chinese got annoyed at us, too. For example, when we first got there we had a van which belonged to the work unit. Vans were precious, and not every work unit had one.  The first morning the leader said, “We’ll pick you up and take you out there.” We’d told the students to be ready at 9:00. Some time after 8:00 a man picked us up and drove us to his office. At 8:45 we asked what was going on.

“Oh, we have to pick up so-and-so, and we have to drive by there and drop this person off.”

We were thinking about the fact that by not showing up on time we were not keeping our side of the bargain with the students. As far as the leaders were concerned, the students could wait.  There was a lot of that kind of friction all the time.

The driver hadn’t wanted to be a driver. I was always surprised at the way he talked back to his leader and the way he treated us. The students had a long walk from the school to the bus stop in the village. We’d say to the driver, “We’d like the students to have a ride to their bus stop.” He wouldn’t reply. He’d just close his mouth, shut the door, and drive off and leave the students behind. We didn’t realize his leader had told him not to let anybody else ride in the van. Then he’d go back and shout at his leader. I was really surprised at that, because in Hong Kong nobody ever voices any complaints. It’s a job and you do it. In China people believed their job descriptions: “I am the driver.  I drive. I don’t carry luggage.” Or, “I’m a typist. I type.”

We also had problems with ignorance on the Hong Kong side, which never thought of problems like getting equipment into China. We arrived with a photocopier, a tape recorder, a typewriter, and various other pieces of electrical equipment. Hong Kong hadn’t thought to mention to the Chinese that we had all this baggage. At Canton, customs wouldn’t let us in. Fortunately one of the students knew one of the customs officers, so the problem was solved in an hour. After that, every time we had such a problem, that student talked to his friend in customs. The Hong Kong people had no idea how inefficient things were in China, and they didn’t seem to have the knack of communicating with the Chinese. We’d go to the Chinese and say, “We need some [imported] paper for the photocopier.”

“Oh yes, we’ll get you some.”

They never did, so I’d call Hong Kong with a list of what we needed.

“OK, we’ll bring it up on our next trip in two weeks’ time.”


In the meantime we had to do without. It took me a couple of weeks before I understood that you don’t go to the Chinese and tell them what you want. I found out by chance. We had a TV and a video machine for showing cassettes which we kept in the flat at school. The leaders took to staying in the flat since we weren’t using it. One day one of them asked for the key.

“Well, listen,” I said, “I’ll give you the key on one condition—that you leave the TV just as we left it so we won’t have to go through a half-hour hassle.”

He looked at me and said, “You mean it takes half an hour to fix the TV?”

“Yes, it does.”

The leaders looked very guilty. I knew they’d got the message, so I handed over the key. It was just a trade-off, but I said it very politely. They looked at each other and said, “Hey, you know, she’s really being wise today.” They never touched the TV again.

The first part of the course was very intensive—all about petroleum, where to look for it, how to get it, how to produce it. The speakers included engineers, office managers from the oil companies, a contract lawyer. Then the oil part finished, the professor left, and I stayed. Another girl came, and we shared the office work instruction. We talked about offices and filing systems, we taught some typing and shorthand, and we got an accountant to come in and teach some basic accounting.

I talked about things like how to take minutes and how to behave in an office. “Don’t go around spitting out the window. Don’t turn up at the office in your slippers [flip-flops] or your pajamas, don’t just pick up the telephone and say “wei” [hello]. Don’t just sit there chatting. Try to be constructive, even if it’s difficult.” We had some knife and fork discussions because interpreters often have to eat with the person they’re interpreting for. “Don’t eat your fried egg off your knife.” It was just little bits that came in as the situation arose. We had thirty students but only fifteen typewriters, so we did the same session morning and afternoon. I was teaching six hours a day, five days a week.

The instruction was not as effective as it should have been. Since I was working on the petroleum part for three months, I didn’t have time to prepare my own course. In the evening I’d spend four hours preparing for the next day. The Chinese didn’t understand the concept of preparation, but they understood hard work. They would come over to the hotel at 10:00 at night, and I’d be typing, and they would be pleased. “Hey, this is good.  This is what we want.”  But they didn’t know what I was doing or what things we needed. I said, “Look, if the students are going to learn to type, I want them to learn to type properly. These tables are the wrong height.”

They promised some decent tables, but I never saw any.  The students learned to type sitting very precariously on piles of whatever we could find. There problems with the language lab. But the thing was, with the Chinese everything had to be slowly brought to their attention. There was no point in trying to tell them all at once because they wouldn’t take it in until they accepted you.  By the time that happened, the course was finished.

In the first few months in Guanzhou, I enjoyed having people came around and ask for help. I was stuck in the hotel, I had no contacts. I didn’t have to go and buy groceries because I just ate in the restaurants in the hotel. There were no everyday life situations. So it was a relief once the students found out that they wouldn’t get stopped too much from coming into the hotel [because they were ordinary Chinese. Their visit to a foreigner was probably also written down.]  They’d get me to write the words of the songs they were listening to, country-western songs and Bob Dylan. They liked slow songs because they could understand what was being said. For them part of the fun was just seeing what was inside the hotel. [In those days walking into the White Swan meant going from poverty and dirt and noise to the largest chandelier you’ve ever seen.]

The students were far more articulate than I am, but I never knew how much I could say or how honest they were. Sometimes we’d get into wondering about Hong Kong and whether it would become like China. They’d say, “Well, if the Hong Kong people don’t toe the line, we’ll just march over them. This is our country.”  I repeated this to somebody else, who said, “Yes, that’s what it says in the papers for the work units, so we have to quote it.”

Sometimes I was caught between the Westerners and the Chinese, particularly at my second job. If I wanted something done for my boss or another “real” foreigner, people would accept it as part of the office routine. But I found it very hard to change things on the Western side to accommodate the Chinese. Since I couldn’t deliver to the Chinese, I couldn’t get anything for myself. I’d say, “I need a train ticket.”

“Sorry, they’re too difficult to get.  We’re not going to try for you.”

When I complained, I heard, “If you want them to treat you like a Chinese, don’t expect them to give you Western service.”

I just wanted to be treated like a person, without having to make treats or references to “my boss, the president.” I think the Chinese were aware that I wanted more human contact. Spending the time of day with them was familiarity, right? A dangerous thing.

In 1983 we took a field trip with the students to an oil base where there were warehouses and supply ships. It took about twelve hours to drive there from Canton. The students went in a big bus, and the Expert and I went in a little one. The professor liked to smoke cigars—cheroots—so nobody liked to travel with him. In the van we argued about whether he would smoke or not and whether the windows would be opened or closed. When we stopped at outhouses, he’d walk around behind them. He couldn’t stand to go inside.

All the girls came in their best dresses and their high-heeled shoes to go walking around on supply ships and warehouses, which are the dirtiest kind of places you can imagine, I suppose because they were going to have their pictures taken all over the place. The blokes came in their best clothes too, but it wasn’t quite as obvious. There was a compound built by one of the oil companies, with swimming pool and a supermarket and villas for the foreign employees. It was very nice. We walked in unknowingly, and these hysterical French ladies got up and yelled, “Out, out!  Take your dirty shoes out of our swimming pool area.”

The students said, “This is China. You can’t tell us to get out. We are going to stand here and have our pictures taken.” So they arranged themselves for the photo while the French women shouted. That was one situation where I did feel very much in the middle. I was holding the camera, and I wanted to leave.